Remembering Eqbal

Irfan Hussain remembers Eqbal Ahmad in his column in the Daily Times.

Irfan HusainLetter from London: Remembering Eqbal —Irfan Husain

Monday, May 15, 2006, Daily Times

For many TIP students to whom Eqbal was just a name, the film was a real eye-opener as it showed their first chancellor as a larger than life personality, mixing with the likes of his comrades, Naom Chomsky and Edward Said. Hopefully, his message of tolerance, peace and justice will resonate in a few young minds.

I know it’s a cliché, but time really does fly. How is it possible that already, seven years have passed since Eqbal Ahmad left us? It seems just a few days ago that I saw him for the last time, an oxygen mask obscuring his face but not his pain-filled eyes. Fatima had called me from Islamabad and said it was looking bad, and I should catch the first flight to Islamabad. I spent most of the day in the hospital, talking to Eqbal’s friends and relatives in hushed tones. He died the next day.

Eqbal Ahmad

A week or so earlier, I had been in Islamabad for some work, and had taken Eqbal, Imran and Fatima to China Town for one of our extravagant feasts. Eqbal tucked in, without a sign of the illness that was gnawing away within. A couple of days later, I called him from Karachi and he wanted to know what I had fed him as he had a terrible stomach ache. The next day he was hospitalised with a diagnosis of colon cancer.

In the last couple of years of his life, he had come to despair of his beloved Khaldunia University project getting off the ground. Endless bureaucratic hassles had taken their toll on even his unflagging optimism. So when Farooq Sumar and I persuaded the Textile Institute of Pakistan board to invite him to become our first chancellor, he accepted, but not without protesting: “Maulana, what do I have to do with textiles?” When I pointed out that neither did I prior to becoming TIP’s president, he agreed to come on board.

As always, he was wonderful with our students, inspiring and amusing them in equal measure. He once said to me that TIP was the most democratic educational institution he had been to in Pakistan, and I have cherished this compliment more than any other I have ever received. So it was entirely fitting that the students and faculty decided to pay a tribute to their first chancellor on his seventh death anniversary on May 11.

Last year, Geo TV and Asia Foundation had collaborated on a documentary on Eqbal, but I was out of Pakistan when it was aired. Iftikhar Ahmad, Eqbal’s nephew and an old friend, gave his copy to TIP, and watching Eqbal talking in his usual animated manner brought tears to the eyes. His niece Nasira sobbed quietly next to me.

For many TIP students to whom Eqbal was just a name, the film was a real eye-opener as it showed their first chancellor as a larger than life personality, mixing with the likes of his comrades, Naom Chomsky and Edward Said. Hopefully, his message of tolerance, peace and justice will resonate in a few young minds.

Some of us spoke briefly, sharing our memories of Eqbal. I recalled the time when I had been summoned back to Pakistan after barely a year with our embassy in Washington when Benazir Bhutto’s government fell in 1990. In the expectation of a normal three-year stint, I had bought some stuff on credit, expecting to pay in instalments. When faced with the prospect of settling my loans immediately, I decided to flog my entire collection of three carpets. But naturally, there were no takers. Desperate, I turned to Eqbal for help, and he sold the wretched carpets to his friends, saving me much embarrassment. Typically, he never mentioned this to our many common friends in Pakistan.

Farooq Sumar spoke about the time he had to leave Karachi after having been threatened by the Haqiqi crowd in the mid-1990s. When he had to come back for a few days, Eqbal not only organised his security, but also stayed with him around the clock. Iftikhar talked about the role of intellectuals in society, mentioning the deep influence Eqbal had on his life after his own father (Eqbal’s brother) died when he was very young. Samir Hoodbhoy told us about the inspiration Eqbal had been for him in his scientific work.

But apart from politics and education, Eqbal had a deep appreciation for the good things of life: he enjoyed good food, music, theatre and films. And he loved paintings and carpets. I remember once when I was driving him to the airport, we stopped at an art gallery exhibiting a collection from Bangladesh. I had been there twice before, having fallen in love with a subdued but striking canvas by Kibria.

I was dying to buy it, but it cost more than I felt I could afford. Eqbal egged me on, saying that money came and went, but I would be sorry if I let the painting go. I’m so glad he persuaded me, because over the years, I have come to appreciate it more than I do any other work in my small collection.

So when I went recently to the Alliance Francaise to see a collection of 50 prints from the Far East, I wish Eqbal could have seen them too. Curated by Sabah Husain, the prints ranged from the lush to the austere. There were works by master print makers from Japan, China, Indonesia and Thailand on display, and I can imagine the Herculean task involved in assembling them. A wonderfully enigmatic woodcut by Noda Tetsuya has stayed in my mind, as has a robust etching by Wu Chang Jiang.

I’m sure Eqbal would have loved them too. I miss my friend.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

3 Replies to “Remembering Eqbal”

  1. Remembering Eqbal

    Sir: I read the article “Remembering Eqbal” (Daily Times, May 15) by Irfan Husain with great interest. It is indeed unfortunate that people in Pakistan know very little of Eqbal Ahmad. A rare combination of writer, journalist, anti-war activist and scholar, Eqbal died on May 11, 1999. He was one of the few Pakistani intellectuals who earned worldwide respect for their determination and commitment towards changing society. Born in India in 1933 Eqbal migrated to Pakistan during partition. Despite his involvement in the political movements of various countries, including Algeria and the US, Eqbal was deeply interested in education and wanted to set up an alternative independent university named “Khuldunia” in Pakistan. Khuldunia never came into existence in Eqbal’s life, but he did become the first chancellor of the Textile Institute of Pakistan and actively tried to establish, in his own words, “the most democratic educational institute of Pakistan”. Eqbal was a man of unmatched intellect and honour. To quote Edward W Said, he was “…perhaps the shrewdest and most original anti-imperialist analyst of the post-war world, especially in the dynamics between the West and the post-colonial states of Asia and Africa”. Here’s, to remembering Eqbal Ahmad.
    [Published in Daily Times, ‘Letters To The Editor’ section on Thursday, May 18, 2006]

  2. Nice article!! It is indeed unfortunate of TIP and others to simply forget about such a renowned allrounder but thanks to people like you who made the authority realize the importance of actually holding a tribute ceremony for Eqbal Ahmed. The tribute was extremely touching! I didn’t know a word about Eqbal Ahmed before but now through this tribute I had a chance to learn about him and this was also a great event in the sense that it arouse a feeling in us to adopt Eqbal Ahmed’s ways and do something for humanity on the whole!!!!!Such events should continue to be organized.

  3. Yea… We didn’t even know that someone named Eqbal Ahmed existed who was worth knowing. All we knew was that our cafeteria was named after him so he must’ve been someone important. The tribute was refreshing.

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